Sometimes amid the hustle and bustle of modern life, we forget to take time to grow spiritually and to connect with others who are following Christ.
The Five Day and Two Year academies, sponsored by Upper Room Ministries, provide opportunities for participants to do both amid the tranquility of retreat centers across the United States, including the Saint Benedict Center in Schuyler, Nebraska.
Each academy features days that start and end with prayer, presentations by trained guest faculty members, worship that includes communion, discussion groups and time for reflection.
And, of course, there is the tranquility that comes with a beautiful setting and times of silence spread throughout the day.
“I liked, in particular, that Five Day Academy is in a silent environment,” said Fred Wilson, a member of the laity at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. “You have no access to TV or to radio, which I found very refreshing.”
Wilson attended the academy in 2013 but had to leave prior to the completion because of a speaking engagement. The peaceful nature of the three days he did spend at the academy on the grounds of the Saint Benedict Center moved him. He said as he drove back into Omaha, he found the lights and sounds of the city to be jarring.
“You have a wonderful opportunity to center yourself,” Wilson said. “You have a wonderful opportunity to find yourself. You have a wonderful opportunity to experience nature, which we don’t take to do on a regular basis.”
He returned in 2014 so he could have the full five-day experience. The choice to attend more than once is far from unique, said the Rev. Carol Roettmer Brewer, who is chair of the Academy Council. She has served as a retreat leader in the past. Her previous posts included associate director of clergy excellence, as well as director of connectional ministry and assistant to the bishop, in the former Nebraska Conference.
Roettmer Brewer explained that each day is scheduled to ensure participants have time for inspired learning and internal reflection. Each day begins with prayer, followed by a presentation by one of two guest instructors. For the April 12-17 session, the presenters were to be the Rev. Grace Imathiu – a United Methodist pastor who has served in Kenya, Washington, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin speaking about “My Story in God’s Story” – and Dr. Wendy Wright, who teaches graduate-level ministerial programs and specializes in the history of spirituality and spiritual direction in the Catholic devotional tradition. Wright will speak on the topic “What is there about Mary?”
After the first presentation, the group enters into an hour of silence for prayer and reflection on the lesson. They then gather for about 30 minutes of discussion. After lunch, the second presenter shares his or her lesson, followed again by the time of silence and then discussion.
Worship each day includes communion, and then the participants break into groups of six to seven people in what are known as talking circles or covenant groups.
“It is not talking shop,” Roettmer Brewer said of the talking circles. “It’s not about trying to fix somebody. It’s really for sharing your experiences with others.”
An evening prayer time is then followed by more silence until the next morning.
The times of prayer and worship were a draw for Five Day Academy participant Jamie Scott. She said the presenters consistently provide stimulating thoughts for reflection and discussion.
“As a lay person who works in a church and helps prepare worship, I don't often get to feel like I'm fully immersed in the worship experience, either because I know what is already going to happen, or because I am concentrating on the technical aspects that I need to take care of,” said Scott, who provided photos for this story and the accompanying photo gallery. “But with the Five Day Academy, it is days upon days of rich, full and moving worship experiences, multiple times a day. It is a chance to renew and refill my own creativity and vitality.”
While the structure, high level of learning and silence may not be for everyone, Roettmer Brewer said she believes more people would appreciate and benefit from such an experience if they were to give it a try. That’s particularly true for young people.
“First, it’s about wanting to share the experience,” she said. “In my own journey, I think it would have been more helpful if I’d caught on earlier to more spiritual formation. With a greater variety of people, it certainly is a richer experience. You hear from people with more perspectives.”
The program is celebrating its 25th year, a milestone that shows this kind of intense training and reflection is still in demand, Roettmer Brewer said.
This year, she said she started participating in an even more time-intensive program, the Two Year Academy. As a program also affiliated with Upper Room Ministries, she chose to take part not in Nebraska, but in San Antonio, Texas.
“I’m enjoying doing this with a different group of people in another part of the country,” she said.
The Two Year Academy provides opportunities for participants to get together eight times over two years for five days each session. In between, participants have 32 books to read and reflect upon. Two of the Two Year Academy programs are accepting applications – one in Gallant, Alabama that runs Aug. 3, 2015 to May 13, 2017, and another in Schuyler, Nebraska, from Aug. 9, 2016 to April 16, 2018.
“I’m learning things that I’ve never even thought of before,” Roettmer Brewer said. One example she gave is a lesson on the Greek Orthodox Church and its approach to prayer.
The cost for a Two Year Academy is about $6,000, plus books. So the Academy Council is studying ways to provide scholarships to make the financial commitment less of a burden for people who are considering such a commitment.
About the Saint Benedict Center
One important feature of the Five Day and Two Year academies, sponsored by Upper Room Ministries, is the venue. Each of the sessions is planned in tranquil environs to set the mood for learning and spiritual formation.
One of the venues is located in the Great Plains Conference, in Schuyler, Nebraska, about 50 miles northwest of Omaha. Founded by Benedictine monks, the Catholic retreat center is set up to provide meeting spaces for small group, large organizations, businesses and even individuals. It has hosted the Five Day Academy since the retreat center opened 18 years ago.
“We have a wonderful facility,” said Father Thomas Leitner, administrator of the retreat center. “We’re grateful that we can offer a peaceful and modern facility.”
Leitner said the center helps fulfill the mission set forth by the facility’s namesake, St. Benedict, who preached about unity among the people and hospitality.
“What makes the Saint Benedict Center different from other facilities is the community of praying monks,” he said. “it creates an atmosphere of prayer and makes this place an oasis of peace.”
The facility hosts approximately 15,000 people each year, but that doesn’t mean it can’t serve more people.
“We’re always busy,” Leitner said. “But we would like for more people to know about us.”